Under Pressure


West High School is known nation-wide for their academic excellence and achievements. 


In 2019, they were named #1 Best Public High School in Iowa by Niche.com and 21 of their students were named National Merit Semifinalists, 20 of whom went on to be Finalists. 


So, what does it take for West’s students to perform at such a high level? And, how does it impact their lives?


68 students responded to a survey asking them questions about their course load and personal experience with academic pressure. 


West High encourages their students to enroll in AP courses and 74% of students who take at least one AP exam, pass. Completing these classes shows a rigorous course load, which, US News reports to be one of the most important components of college applications. The source listed that many institutions review students’ AP exam scores as well. 


Because of this, many students feel pressured to take a large number of AP classes.


“I’ve always been told that AP classes help with getting into colleges. Especially if I’m looking to go to a prestigious college,” said Kevy Huynh ‘23. 


In fact, 67.6% of responders reported feeling highly pressured to take a large number of AP classes. 




How pressured do you feel to take a large number of AP/Honors classes?


Rigorous course loads often entail more challenging curriculums and a larger amount of homework. 72.06% of responders said they spend an average of three to seven hours on homework per night. 


“I like to complete my homework thoroughly and to the best of my ability. However, this is very time consuming and often leads to limited sleep and free time,” said Caroline Mascardo ‘23. Mascardo explained that this impacts her life in many ways. “It can sometimes make me less motivated and productive when doing school work, make social interactions with others more difficult and come at the expense of my well-being.” 


Cymry Hieronymus ‘21 feels similarly to Mascardo. “I’m a pretty tired person and should probably get more [sleep]. This affects every aspect of my performance in school, from my focus in class to my ability to stay awake while doing homework.” 


Standardized test scores are another key component of college applications and a large majority (92.5%) of responders feel highly pressured to score “very highly” on the PSAT, SAT and ACT tests. 




How pressured do you feel to score very highly on the PSAT, SAT and ACT tests?


Despite this, students are divided on how much they think standardized tests should be emphasized by teachers, colleges, etc. 


I feel like standardized tests should be emphasized more [than they are now],” said Tikki Cui ‘21. “This is due to my belief that standardized tests are one of the few reliable methods of testing a student’s proficiency on a certain topic.” Cui also believes that because these tests are uniform nation-wide, it is extremely difficult for high schools to alter results. 


However, Mascardo and Hieronymus have contrary thoughts. 


I believe that there is too strong an emphasis on standardized tests,” said Mascardo. “Coming from personal experiences and stories of others, standardized tests often lead to low self-esteem if the individual believes their results do not fully reflect their capabilities.”


“Some people don’t test well under pressure, even though they understand the material,” Hieronymus said. “And, for a lot of people, standardized tests are a big source of stress and have a super intimidating connotation.”


Other students, like Amy Liao ‘21, believe that because these tests are so important, students should have a better understanding of how they work. “I never had any teacher formally explain the process to me, which would have been super helpful early on. Standardized tests are so central in the college application process so it surprises me that we never actually learned about them,” Liao explained. 


The pressure placed on students to achieve academic excellence can cause large amounts of stress. In fact, the largest percentage of responders (43.6%) rated their academic stress level, seven out of ten or higher. 




On average, how stressed do you feel about academics?


Furthermore, many students can pinpoint where they think the pressure is coming from. 


[It] comes a lot from West’s legacy,” said Huynh. “We’re the top-ranked school in Iowa and that really pushes us to do well.” 


“West’s average ACT score is several points higher than the state average, and most students go on to pursue post-secondary education,” Mascardo said. “Students feel as though they have to take as many AP/Honors classes as they can to prove their worth.” Mascardo also wonders if the new changes to test retake and attendance policies are a response to students’ accomplishments. 


Equal opportunity and treatment for students is an ongoing conversation amongst students, teachers and parents. Some students feel that the amount of pressure placed on them is influenced by their race and gender. 


Mariam Keita ‘22 identifies as black and feels that she has been treated differently from her peers because of her race. “Even though my parents pressure me, the teachers really don’t pressure me to do anything challenging,” she said. 


Huynh also feels that her race has affected the standards placed on her. “I think it’s clear to anyone that I am Asian,” she said. “And, the stereotype still exists about Asians being super smart and getting straight A’s. But, it’s still possible for me to flunk an exam like anyone else.” However, overall Huynh has found that West’s students are very accepting and supporting. “No matter anyone’s gender, race, sexual orientation, et centra.”


If one thing’s for certain: the school’s students and teachers go the extra mile to make West High a place “where excellence is a tradition”. 


Additional demographics:




How pressured do you feel to have an accumulative GPA of 4.0 or higher?




How pressured do you feel to get accepted into a prestigious college?